21 October 2010

Daniel Huws at Mytholmroyd, 17th October 2010

The following is a guest post by Gail Crowther, who attended the recent Daniel Huws event in Mytholmroyd. - pks

Last Sunday I attended a talk given by Daniel Huws in the Yorkshire town of Mytholmroyd. It was a talk filled with stories and poems and wonderful folk songs and a talk that brought alive the house at 18 Rugby Street in such vivid light. Daniel recalled his time at Cambridge where he first got to know Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and his subsequent friendship with both. Given that ‘Last Letter’ had just been published the previous week, it seemed as though the ghosts of 18 Rugby Street featured prominently both in Daniel’s talk and in the echoes of Hughes’ poem about Plath’s final weekend. It was enlightening to discover various elements of the poem that were slightly misremembered (and who of us can say we have never had a false memory?). Daniel felt the poem was written towards the end of Hughes’ life and thus any inaccuracies perhaps due to the passing of time, or maybe even poetic liberties.

But it was the house that lay behind everything, the house in Rugby Street in which Daniel’s father owned a flat, the same flat in which Plath and Hughes spent their first nights together and subsequently a longer period of time in 1959-1960 after their return from America. They were not the only extraordinary residents though. The ground floor had the car salesman who kept his mistress, Helen, and her Alsatian dog, both of whom feature in ‘Last Letter’. However, since Helen had gassed herself three years before Plath, it is not possible that she opened the door to Susan Alliston on that weekend in February 1963. Other residents chart a somewhat tragic history -- the house, full as Daniel described it, of ‘spooks’. There was the widow on the first floor whose husband had fallen from a ladder and died; the Lebanese Drs, mother and son (the son would become the final lover of Susan Alliston before her death in 1969), the loner architect in the top floor flat who drowned at sea in his yacht and the artist Jim Downer who had studied art at Leeds and was friends with the actor Peter O’Toole. Surely a history of this house alone would make a fascinating memoir! The flat in which Susan Alliston lived was a floor above the flat in which Plath and Hughes stayed, so the claims in ‘Last Letter’ that Hughes spent the night in February 1963 in his and Plath’s marriage bed, again may be a false memory. The full facts of this weekend, Daniel feels, are probably yet to be revealed.

The talk ended with a poetry reading – the first Daniel has given for over 30 years – from his collection The Quarry. Highlights for me were ‘A Dawn’, ‘Goodbye’ and an unpublished poem called ‘Debris’. This was followed by folk songs, the same songs that Daniel used to sing sitting in The Anchor in Cambridge with his friends. They were warm and humorous, much like the man himself.

Gail Crowther 19/10/10


panther said...

Thank you to Gail for this interesting report.

I agree that memory can play false. Or just alter, subtly, over time.

And poetic liberties ? Of course. No reason why Hughes shouldn't have been employing them in "Last Letter." As long as the liberties taken chime emotionally with the other material. I don't think Hughes was aiming for reportage, after all ! Which I think is what throws a lot of journalists about most art (not just poetry) : journalists work with reportage, are quite literal in many ways. Whereas poets, painters, etc work with symbols, metaphors, myth.

Kristina Zimbakova said...

Excellent point panther!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you for clarifying some of the myseteries of "Last Letter", Gail! This will be very helpful in peeling back the layers of the poem to see what we can believe might actually have happened that weekend and what, as Panther and others have said, is more along the lines of those symbols, metaphors, and myths.

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